Monday, May 22, 2017

More fears - middle aged and otherwise

Fear of a bad review at work
Fear that I am still a bratty tween
Fear that people can see that I'm faking being an adult woman on the outside while being a bratty tween on the inside
Fear of saying stupid things while drunk
Fear of getting drunk and sleeping with men and waking up and realizing I said stupid things all night long
Fear that the man will want to call me
But the other fear that I should want him to call me and what does it mean that I do not care?
Fear that I do not know enough
Fear that I can never know enough
Fear that everyone else knows more than me
Fear that I always say stupid things, drunk or not
Fear that I will know the right thing to do but do the wrong thing
Fear that I have made bad decisions my whole life and that this represents a pattern and that the pattern is strong enough to be "who you are" and that this essentially makes me a "person who makes bad decisions"
Fear that everyone else is making better decisions while I am out there fucking up again and again
Fear that I am beginning to hate myself for all of these fuck ups
Fear that I have always hated myself and am just now beginning to admit it
Fear that even though I have admitted this, I will not be able to change it
Fear that all of this fear is very self absorbed
Fear that my grandfather will die
Fear that my kids will not remember him
Fear that all of his knowledge and his experience of the old world - a world that does not exist anymore- will be gone with him
Fear that we will forget
the Holocaust
a world where people went hungry and walked miles for fresh water daily
a world in which you had to walk everywhere and you couldn't text upon arrival
that a 97 year old man was once a teenager who liked to sing zionist songs with his friends and perform in street plays on Purim and dance tango with young ladies at the rec center in the village
Fear of time

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why I Can't Stop Writing About the Holocaust

They say the second generation after a traumatic event actually has a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome. My mother fits the bill - nightmares, guilt, acting from obligation, extreme dedication to the group. But what about the third generation? Are we supposed to be rid of it? I'm definitely not.

Last night, Larry and I came home to find all three of our kids cuddling on the couch with my parents. It was really sweet. Eli, who had a fever, was on my Dad's lap, and they were both draped in our couch blanket. Dylan was reading a book I'd never seen to my mom and Joey had her head in my mother's lap, listening. I noticed it was a sort of graphic novel. Then I realized it was some book about the Holocaust. Dylan is 7 and Joey is 4. They were reading about a boy whose parents had pushed him into a closet. The story followed the boy's narrow escpae from the Nazis while hiding in this closet. That sounds pretty intense for a 7 year old, when I think about it. They don't even start Holocaust education in Hebrew School until 4th grade.

Larry was upset - he thought the kids were too young. But they didn't seem upset; in fact, they seem interested. It is certainly too young for gory details. But is there an age that is too young to know about this world-changing event, an event that two of their great-grandparents survived? Great-grandparents they know, by the way, not just some dusty old pictures with hollow eyes and no smiles, people they love.

List of Middle Age Fears

Fear of eyebrows
Fear of being mean to other peoples' children
Fear of wrinkly underarms
Fear of overtalking - when you've made your point but you can't seem to wrap up without repeating yourself several times and more weakly
Fear of appearing too easy
Fear of wanting to be too easy
Fear of actually being too easy
Fear of liking being too easy
Fear of hating being too easy
Fear of overcompensating for being too easy by being an ice cold bitch
Fear of losing my sarcastic edge
Fear that the sarcastic edge might actually be hiding something less palatable
Fear that you're not really a nice person
Fear that you're a nice person who has no idea how to show it
Fear that you're past the age at which you can be forgiven for not being that nice
Fear of hairless balls - why on earth would a man shave his balls?
Fear that you are letting my children use screens too much
Fear that you cannot manage their screen usage are about to lose them down a hole in which the digital world is more real than the physical world.
Fear that you will never again spend a rainy trying to find the pattern in raindrops
Fear of your inner bitch
Fear that someone will show you his sketchbook, but refuse to read your story
Fear that your marriage was all your fault
Fear that you will repeat all the mistakes of your marriage
Fear of hemorrhoids
Fear of post-ice-cream bloat
Fear of squinting (because you can't find your glasses)
Fear that your sister is the nice version of you
Fear that never having been a friend's bride's maid was not because they had small weddings
Fear that you can't waitress
Fear of Facebook
Fear of camping in the rain
Fear of wildly fluctuating spring temperatures (a 40 degree difference over 4 days)
Fear of being recognized at CVS while buying popcorn and ice cream (3 days in a row)
Fear of small lies
Fear of your lack of fear of big lies
Fear that you are easily manipulated
Fear of over-realistic art
Fear of your sparking fuse box
Fear that you will run out of money before the end of the month
Fear that you won't be able to fix the fuse box
Until next month
After your house has gone up in flames
Fear that you will never get a promotion
Fear that your drug addict neighbor is trying to rob you
Fear that your kids don't get to ride bikes enough
Fear that your kids spend too much time in the car
Fear that you're letting everyone down
Fear that you don't visit your wheelchair-bound aunt often enough
Fear that you can't handle trying to have a conversation with her now that she's had a stroke
Fear that this means you are shallow
Fear that you are less important to her than her financial adviser
Fear that being anxious and depressed makes you a weak person
Fear that you won't be able to afford to send your kids to a nice camp
Fear that you'll spend almost as much money sending them to a crappy city camp that they hate
Fear that you are a real-life female George Costanza

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

So Cute I Just Had to Share!

Ok, I know, how corny, but come on ... I'm his mother!!!

PS See if you can hold out for the jumping. I heart the jumping.

Feminist Star Wars

Of course a movie with a woman and a black man as its heroes would be a feminist film, but the thrust of the message doesn't come from casting the protagonists alone. It's not just that we have a powerfully progressive duo at the center of the film, but more to the point that they are also the icons of a new generation of progressivism. They are heroes not just of the film, but of the current era of inclusion that we'd like to imagine we're approaching.

Finn and Rey are, of course, fighting the bad guys in the movie, and it should be eminently clear who the bad guys are modeled after, the Nazis, of course. Largely white men, with the occasional chic but cold frau who uses sex to help meet the Empire's needs or violence to quell insurgencies, the army of the Dark Side literally Sieg Heil's at one point to a commander wearing an insignia that looks suspiciously like a swastika. In a call out to both slavery and the practices of African warlords who strong arm child armies, Finn explains that he was taken from his family at a very young age and trained from his earliest memories as a loyal killing machine. In many ways, Finn is the escaped slave crossing the Mason Dixon Line to fight for the Union, or even a Lost Boy.

Of course, the opposite of the organization Americans most closely associate with pure evil is the Rainbow Coalition of genders, races, languages, and even species. Princess Leia leads the Rebel Forces with grit, though we have seen the Star Wars franchise give wise and powerful roles to female characters in the past and from its inception the men around the hologram planning table (and they are still, with the exception of Leia, still all men) have hailed from the seeming four corners of the Galaxy, but now we have female fighter pilots and pilots of color (as well as pilots of creature :), though it would have been nice to have had at least one black woman in a named part. How telling this is at a time when the U.S. military has just agreed to allow women into combat roles. The Rebel Army is, of course, our idealized view of American society, a mixture of immigrant peoples, perhaps more rag tag at first but emerging as a strong fighting force for good. The ideal itself is a blending of the values around freedom and bravery in the face of evil  that characterized the Greatest Generation and the Millenial values of race and gender equality.

So it makes a lot of sense that while Finn is the one who kickstarts the action, the climax and denoument belong to Rey. As a black man, Finn must prove himself to be gentle (but strong and brave - he is, after all, still a man), smart, and good from the gut. This he does from his very first act, and we accept it immediately, as do all the characters. But Rey has more to prove, and like all strong women, must fight even her allies to make them see her fortitude, her physicality, and her mental ingenuity. In the end, it is her fight against the Dark Side because she is the least likely, though in the days of Catness and the Frozen duo, it is also true that we are living in an age in which the lady is likely to save not just herself, but the whole kingdom.

If superheroes are our modern mythology, and if Star Wars could be considered a very human superhero franchise, then both the movie and its popularity say a lot about our current cultural moment, who we are, who we were, and who we are likely to become. While it was once a big deal fro a tough talking Leia to even hold a gun the first time her two rolled buns appeared on screen, it feels natural today to have her leading the Rebellion. She didn't even get a medal the first time around, but in The Force Awakens, Rey wins the ultimate prize.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I need to write about being a Jew on Christmas. It is hard. It was hard for me as a kid and now it is hard for my children. I don't know if it is less hard for Indian Hindus or Chinese Taoists, but I know that one of the reasons it is hard for me is because of the specific history of antisemitism, both globally and in the United States. And when I say history, I mean historically open, but not gone.

I teach first year writing in college and we mostly focus on cultural studies type topics to introduce the students to the basics of argumentation, so we often touch on the triange of race, class, and gender. So often I get papers that say, "when there was racism" or "when there was a women's movement" and I'm like, wait, is it over, did I miss the bulletin? All of this hatred seething under the surface, and we are so unwilling to acknowledge it openly. I feel it when I walk past the cigar store on my corner, the old boys hangin' out, putting women in their place, wolf calling and discussing titties over their continuous poker game. I hear it when my liberal friends talk about sending their kids to a "good" urban school, which they might characterize as having enough kids with educated parents to tip the scales, but which I hear as "enough white kids." And let me fess up now, I send my kids to one of those schools. So, it didn't take Ferguson to spill the beans on some big secret, though it sure broke the seal on this pretense that we're somehow living in a post-racist society. The conversation on sexism will be harder to explode, since cops aren't actively attacking women, but enough of us have gained all different kinds of power that at least we are slowly, steadily taking back the "f" word (feminism).

But what of anti-semitism? I mean, is anyone talking about it? It seems like Jews my age, who should be the prime movers and shakers on the issue as we move into positions of power and prestige in the workplace and in our communities and into the role of parents at home, have given up to make indie films and run organic farms on former urban dump sites. Do we truly feel so comfortable? This isn't France, of course. Not only will no one spit on you for wearing a yarmulke, but I actually saw a man walking through my South Philly neighborhood wearing one the other day - I swear! I had to look twice to make sure I wasn't losing my mind that I think I made him uncomfortable. I must have looked I swallowed fish. And it's not like I could announce - hey, it's okay, I'm Jewish, too. I'm the token Hannukah mom at all my kids's schools.

But that discomfort, I feel it, too. Jews aren't like people of color. We don't walk around with a flashing sign on our heads that says, "I'm different from you. I am of a reviled people." Except, I guess, if you're wearing a yarmulke in South Philly. And the hatred agains Jews is so different than the hatred agains blacks. We are stereotyped as rich and stingy, rather than poor and out buying beer with our welfare checks. If we have a lot of children, people assume we're very religious, not ignorant of birth control. If we ascend to positions of prominence, it is assumed we got their because of our daddies or the secret Jewish media/banking/doctor/lawyer network, not because we worked hard or used our keppes.

Planet Money, one of my favorite podcasts, did a story about the history of Iceland, focusing on the poverty and cold that kept Icelanders indoors for a thousand years of winters during which time the only thing they had to do was read and write Sagas. This, the reporter felt, this culture of reading and writing, has made Iceland very successful in an age when education, intellect, and written communication has become valuable. Icelanders publish more books each year than many other, much larger countries. And I thought about how no one has ever researched Jewish culture to come up with such a reasonable, anthropological explanation about how "the people of the book" might generation after generation keep landing in journalism, film, and English faculty meetings. Or at least I've never heard it put so plainly, or even positively where Jews are concerned. It is a truism that Judaism is both a culture and a religion. And guess what, intellectualism, critical thinking, textuality, logic and argumentation are prized in both. I mean, is it really a surprise? And does it have to be negative? Here's the big conspiracy everyone: it's nurture, not nature.

When we moved into our first South Philly home, it was just a few days before Rosh HaShana. As we met our neighbors, who are very nice, very warm people who we grew to like very much, we explained to them that we would move our things into the house and then go to my parents for a few days to celebrate the holiday, and return to start putting the house in order after that. The continuous answer we got was, Oh you're Jewish. Oh, that's okay, that's okay," almost always delivered with their hands up in a kind of "do not kill my baby to use his blood in your Matzoh" kind of way as they backed slowly away. We joked that we knew it was okay and that we were fine with it, but it stung. After all, when we bought the house, the man selling it to us told us how releived he was we weren't black since his mother and aunt still lived on the block. Other neighbors told us it was a "good block" because they didn't have any black residents and "not even any Chinese!" So, despite the fact that I do believe they are good people, this was not the most enlightened crowd. Or maybe they were just more up front about things that the more PC crowd we usually run with. And I think our living there - being good neighbors, being down to earth, bringing food when someone died, bringing our kids to play on the stoop with their kids- I think that made a difference. Although I think the biggest revelation was when our wonderful neighbors Ray and Ricardo bought a house next door to us and presented the neighbors with the first openly gay couple. Ricardo, as his name might suggest, is from a wealthy family in Venezuala, has an MBA and impeccable taste. When swine flu was wreaking havoc in Mexico, he got a big kick out of all the neighbors being concerned for his family, especially when he had to explain that Venezuala was actually an entirely different country than Mexico.

At no time is our neighborhood more alive than during Christmas season. The lights on 13th Street are amazing and Christmas Eve is full of our Italian neighbors cooking up the traditional Italian feast of seven fishes - which I have always longed to be invited to. I actually love Christmas time, or many things about it. I take my kids to see the light show at Macy's and visit the Dickens Village upstairs. The Morris Arboretum has an adorable holiday railroad and I really enjoy some of the more traditional music and hymns. And, of course, I love going to my husband's family's parties as well as friends' parties. I am happy for them to celebrate. The best part is that when we go to one of Larry's sister's houses to enjoy the holiday with them, I feel none of the stress that so many of my friends feel and none of the stress I usually feel during Jewish holidays. Although, I think the stress for people celebrating Christmas must be so much more intense because there is an entire world of media building up your expectations whereas you never really get car commercials pressuring you to have an amazing Yom Kippur!

And somewhere in that overwhelm is the point I'm trying to make - Christmas is the time at which I feel most alienated from American culture and from non-Jewish friends. It is also the time when antisemetism is at its most obvious and most present. People who are able to keep it in check usually, are simply so appalled that anyone might not celebrate Christmas. It seems a slap in the face to them, I guess, a rejection of this value. That's almost what it is. It's as if as Christ has fallen out of Christmas, to be replaced by Tickle Me Elmos and ugly jewelry, Christmas has taken on it's own value. Friends who are lapsed Catholics (you rarely meet a lapsed Lutheran) or "nothing" will talk at length about the "values" of Christmas, which seem from the outside to be roughly about appreciating your family and togetherness, as well as something about enjoying the magic of childhood. All of which is very nice, but it certainly doesn't mean that you can't value those things without celebrating Christmas. I also get comments from friends who ask me to make sure my kids don't tell their kids that Santa isn't real, as if I've gone around trying to get my kids to ruin Christmas for them. Yes, some of this comes from inside - my own feeling of being left out - but some of it is about the ways in which the dominant society is so blind to difference and to their own dominance as to make all other groups invisible. Just as we are invisible when we walk down the street without yarmulkes, so are we invisible at Christmas. And because Christmas itself is overwhelming, I think we are invisible-er. And dare we announce ourselves, via yarmulke or suggesting somehow that we don't celebrate Christmas and I'd actually rather you didn't send my kid home from public school with an ornament that reads "Santa's Little Helper", when we make ourselves visible, this becomes offensive, and the latent antisemitism emerges. People are offended when you don't want to take their ornaments.

James Carroll just wrote a very interesting book about the antisemitism on which Christian culture is based. He reminds us that it is only a decade since the Vatican announced its reversal on the deeply held belief that Jews are Christ killers. I don't feel like I walk around in a world in which people reflexively think "Christ killer" when they learn of my heritage. We are many degrees removed from France. But it's there, as Carroll points out in his book. It's underlying our society and it's there. I don't think we will get a Ferguson - I certainly hope it wouldn't come to such violence. I think perhaps, though, we get an annual way into the conversation through Christmas.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Modernity and Fear

I'm doing a unit with my students on modernity, a nebulous term that I am using as a waiy to bring together gloabalism/big business, revolution, and information. I am finding it really interesting and I think my students are excited about exploring this new topic with me. But it's a little slecary - for them as well as for me. I'm asking them to go from these very structured assignments to a very free fall paper where they have to bring together all of these topics and connect them in some crazy new way. Knowing this would be very different for them, I've given them a lot of small parts to build up to the big paper, but these are also hard and scary for them, and I am wondering if I've given them too advanced a challenge here. But then when I have a chance to talk to them about what they think, they sound releived to be free enough to go out and make the connections on their own. They seem excited to be let off the leash a bit. I am excited to see what they will come back with, but really - I feel a bit in a free fall as well. What exactly are they supposed to DO in the paper? Well, I guess I'll find out.

This has lead to a lot of interesting lessons from and for me. I need to model a bit of the making connections, so I am doing that by drawing the connections across some of the readings and also by introducing current news that relate to some of the readings and showing the connections there. Today, I taught what might be a really crazy lesson. I think it worked out really well in my second class, and it lead to some really interesting discussion there. Also, because they actually read the assigned readings (as opposed to my earlier class, who definitely did not), they got really deep into the discussion questions, which was nice. It was nice to see them get so excited about the questions and I could hear that they were leading to real conversations among the groups. We didn't have very much time to report back to the group, but that's ok.

But the thing is - and here's the fear part - I was being observed through this whole crazy experiment! The colleague observing me seems really great, but it's so it'ss o har to read someone's face when you're doing this really hard thing and they're writing down everything you're doing. I think that either he thought it was a really interesting lesson OR he thinks it was totally insane teaching. He did catch one factual error I made (and it made so much sense when he explained it!), so then I'm wondering what else did I do wrong, what else did I do wrong????!!?!?!?! and before long the fear (that I'm a fraud, not a very good teacher, not a very nice person, not very smart, more interested in showing off than in helping students make real connections, just like to listen to myself talk - kind of true) just takes over.

But I don't want it to. I want to stop getting in my own way, and I don't want to be too afraid to take risks. And it is totally possible I will decide that this is not the best assignment for them at this point in their writing lives. Or perhaps I will re-think the assignment and the unit entirely - that's certainly possible. But I know it will help these students along the path of critical thinking and reading and writing. And I know that it's not the end of the world if it's not perfect - I'm not going to lose my job for it. But that's such a scary thought, that I really want to just shut down. It's so hard to get things wrong. I think critique is really helpful and I don't profess to be a master teacher. I told the observer that I wanted to use this as a professional development opportunity, but really I am so scared he will say: that was insane teaching, you are a terrible teacher and we never should have hired you, that assignment is coo coo for cocopuffs and you need to get rid of it now, give them a new assignment or just expunge it from your portfolio or just give all the students in all of your classes As for just putting up with you for the semester). Then I hear my therapist telling me that I give away all my power and I shoot myself in the foot over and over for no good reason - or maybe there is a reason and the reason is fear.

It felt so good to start this crazy assignment and to be open to going where it takes me. Now it feels harder, not because I believe in it less or even because the students are befuddled (I'm truly ok with a little confusion and have faith that they will work through it) but because I'm worried about criticism. I just don't want to live in the shadow of judgement my whole life. How can I get to the point of accepting people's constructive criticism without feeling judged? How can I push myself to try daring things, even though, they may, in fact, be judged and quite harshly at times?